SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2007 Personal Memory Ethnographies
Thank You Bessie & Cecilia
I often think back on the day that my father used the “N” word for the first time in front of me. I try to imagine what he was thinking and where he learned to use the “N” word. For thirty two years, I have pondered what it really meant to him and to me. Now that I am older (and a little wiser), I try to imagine how it is that my father and I can view the “borderland of race” so differently. It is within this context that my story begins.
The world of sports has always been a significant indicator of racial tension in America. Many leagues started off segregated, and if they were not, the black players played significantly less than the white players. Even with such great names as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain, Arthur Ashe, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods (et al), my father has a way of dismissing their achievements.
Every Sunday, my father and I watched football together. The office where my father and I watched the football game was small and could be closed off from the rest of the house. This was a special place for my father and me to spend time together without any interruptions. If my father allowed me into his office, I knew that it was his way of inviting me into his world or time. I would sit on his lap and he taught me about being a part of a team, touchdowns, passes, fouls, and winning and losing. I felt very special because he traveled so much and was rarely home, yet he devoted this time for us to be together. Other than the topic of football, we didn’t say much else during a four hour period.
On one Sunday in particular the words, “that damn, stupid nigger” came raging out of my father’s mouth. He sounded so angry and mad. For fear that I had done something wrong, I asked him why he was yelling, and he simply said that the players on the television didn’t know what they were doing. That was it? That was the explanation? It just didn’t feel right to me because his tone of voice felt so hateful.
I began to disconnect from my father almost immediately. I wanted to darken the two, large glass windows of the office so no one could see inside from any angle. I especially didn’t want Bessie, Cecilia or anyone else to see or hear my father yelling at the football game or saying mean words.
Bessie was my favorite maid and Cecilia was my favorite seamstress. Cecilia also made the best home-made Tamales I have ever put in my mouth. She would bring them to my grandmother’s dress shop every Saturday. I remember asking her how tamales were made and she would have these wonderful stories about how all the women in her family would gather in the kitchen and talk and laugh while making the tamales. I remember feeling jealous because she had a family that liked to be together. As for Bessie, I will never forget her. She and I talked for hours. I would watch her cook and clean and she would tell me about her family, her children, and tell me stories about when she was a little girl. She was one of my best friends growing up. She taught how much soap to put in the washer, she taught me how to make my bed, and she taught me about friendship.
Growing up in a world full of difference, opposition, power and turmoil certainly explains why the “N” word incident, which happened in 1972, is significant in my mind. A timeline of history conveys the racial events between 1960 and 1986 and certainly gives a somewhat “reasonable” answer for my father’s use of the “N” word and why I did not react or feel the same as he did. When I stop and think about it, affirmative action, assassinations, desegregation of schools, civil rights, the Vietnam War, protests, and racial profiling were all a part of the world that surrounded my family. It was a period of “them and us” and people were either for something or against it. It was if there was an “invisible” border that kept people apart.
And, by looking into my own family history, I can truly get a sense of my father and why he felt the way he did. I grew up in Texas. My parents were raised in South Texas as were my grandparents. As far back as I can remember my family always had a maid that came during the day to cook, clean, and watch over my brothers and me while my parents were working. Every Saturday, we would spend the day at my grandmother’s dress shop. My grandmother always told us to stay out of the way and in the back with the seamstress. The maids were always black and the seamstresses were always Mexican. Very rarely were my parents around so I believe (and give credit to) that my life influences came from the maids and/or the seamstresses.
As one can imagine, the “N” word incident with my father did not go over very well when I asked Bessie to explain. She didn’t fault me for asking, but I remember her explaining that it was not a nice word and to never use it again. However, my brothers began to use it regularly. I don’t even think they knew what it meant, but they knew enough from my father that it was meant for Bessie. I remember feeling very confused and upset, because it wasn’t much later that Bessie no longer came to our house. Again, I was left in the dark and nothing was ever explained and I never saw Bessie again.
Since I was looking for more of an explanation from my father, I try and imagine his thoughts and how he would explain his use of the word:
“Why did I use the “N” word in front of my daughter? Simply, I was raised in the south and that was the culture. My mother used the word, my friends used the word, and, so, I didn’t know differently; therefore, I did not question whether or not the word was “bad”. I grew up with the notion that white was better. I think my perception of being white was better because blacks and whites were segregated from each other. After all, blacks rode in the back of the bus, they cooked my meals, they cleaned up my mess, and because blacks and whites were never seen with each other. I saw black people as people to order around and when they didn’t listen, do what I said, questioned what I said, or didn’t make the touchdown, it made me very angry. All I knew was to call them names so they would remember their place in society. Most importantly, I did not believe that it was wrong to say the “N” word in front of my daughter. In my mind, I thought that I was teaching her about difference. It never occurred to me that it might make her feel uncomfortable or that she might not agree with me.”
I can reflect back on this now and can somewhat understand what happened, but I am still left with many unanswered questions. Why would my parents want someone that they “did not like” to watch over me or be in their house? Why did my father, whom I idolized, feel such hatred toward people of different colors? Why didn’t I feel the same way? What was wrong with me? Growing up, I kept many secrets about the relationships that I developed because I didn’t see a difference and I didn’t feel a difference in people because of their color. I was very distant from my parents and their beliefs because I felt as if I was doing something wrong and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I, also, felt ashamed of my family and was scared to introduce anyone to them for fear of what they might say. Today, at age 42, I am more at ease with who I am and who my family is. They have grown to be more accepting and I have become less embarrassed by them. To me, the more different someone is from me, the more I have to learn from that person. Thank you for that, Bessie and Cecilia.
Because the Civil Rights movement was probably the most defining issue of this era, Afro-Americans were brought to the forefront. Their recognition created violence, hatred, and, even, understanding by some. Before this era, white and black people were kept apart by law and now white and black people were being forced together because of law. There was no support in the reasoning about how to deal or cope with the issues and how to let go of the years and years of history. That being said, violence and protests were a way to express feelings. People of power were being assassinated, riots were erupting, and even peaceful protests of love and happiness were in the forefront.
The world had been divided for so long and then over a relatively short period of time the world was supposed to integrate and diffuse the “borderland of race”. It is no wonder that in today’s America, people are still divided and unsure of the other. However, my father and I have sewn the tear in our relationship that we once had. And now, when I hear him speak in my mind, I feel honored to know and understand him:
When I think back to the day my daughter heard me use the “N” word, I wish I had handled the whole situation differently. She must have felt so scared to introduce me to her friends and it is probably why she kept her distance from me for so long. Today, I have a wonderful son-in-law from Haiti which has actually helped me understand my own thoughts and actions about race. Ironically, instead of teaching my daughter about difference; it is my daughter that teaches me about the “borderland of race.”
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